A plurality of plurals

A plurality of plurals

Of all the world’s languages, English is the most widely learnt by adults. Although Mandarin Chinese has the highest number of speakers overall, owing to the huge size of China’s population, second-language speakers of English outnumber those of Mandarin more than three times.

Considering that the majority of English speakers learn the language in adulthood, when our brains have lost much of their early plasticity, it’s just as well that some aspects of English grammar are pretty simple compared to other languages. Take for example the way we express the plural. With only a small number of exceptions, we make plurals by adding a suffix –s to the singular. The pronunciation differs depending on the last sound of the word it attaches to – compare the ‘z’ sound at the end of dogs to the ‘s’ sound at the end of cats, and the ‘iz’ at the end of horses – but it varies in a consistently predictable way, which makes it easy to guess the plural of an English noun, even if you’ve never heard it before.

That’s not the case in every language. Learners of Greek, for example, have to remember about seven common ways of making plurals. Sometimes knowing the final sounds of a noun and its gender make it possible to predict the plural, but  other times learners simply have to memorise what kind of plural a noun has: for example pateras ‘father’ and loukoumas ‘doughnut’ both have masculine gender and singulars ending in –as, but in Standard Greek their plurals are pateres and loukoumathes respectively.

This is similar to how English used to work. Old English had three very common plural suffixes, -as, -an and –a, as well as a number of less common types of plural (some of these survive marginally in a few high-frequency words, including vowel alternations like tooth~teeth and zero-plurals like deer). The modern –s plural descends from the suffix –as, which originally was used only for a certain group of masculine nouns like stān, ‘stone’ (English lost gender in nouns, too, but that’s a subject for another blog post).

How did the -s plural overtake these competitors to become so overwhelmingly predominant in English? Partly it was because of changes to the sounds of Old English as it evolved into Middle English. Unstressed vowels in the last syllables of words, which included most of the suffixes which expressed the gender, number and case of nouns, coalesced into a single indistinct vowel known as ‘schwa’ (written <ə>, and pronounced like the ‘uh’ sound at the beginning of annoying). Moreover, final –m came to be pronounced identically to –n. This caused confusion between singulars and plurals: for example, Old English guman ‘to a man’ and gumum ‘to men’ both came to be pronounced as gumən in Middle English. It also caused confusion between two of the most common noun classes, the Old English an-plurals and the a-plurals. As a result they merged into a single class, with -e in the singular and -en in the plural.

This left Middle English with two main types of plural, one with –en and one with –(e)s. Although a couple of the former type remain to this day (oxen and children), the suffix –es was gradually generalised until it applied to almost all nouns, starting in the North of England and gradually moving South.

A similar kind of mass generalisation of a single strategy for expressing a grammatical distinction is often seen in the final stages of language death, as a community of speakers transition from a minority to a majority language as their mother tongue. Nancy Dorian has spent almost 50 years documenting the dying East Sutherland dialect of Scots Gaelic as it is supplanted by English in three remote fishing villages in the Scottish highlands. In one study the Gaelic speakers were divided into fluent speakers and ‘semi-speakers’, who used English as their first language and Gaelic as a second language. Dorian found that the semi-speakers tended to overgeneralise the plural suffix –an, applying it to words for which fluent speakers would have used one of another ten inherited strategies for expressing plural number, such as changing the final consonant of the word (e.g. phũ:nth ‘pound’, phũnčh ‘pounds’), or altering its vowel (e.g. makh ‘son’, mikh ‘sons’).

But why should the last throes of a dying language bear any resemblance to the evolution of a thriving language like English? A possible link lies in second language acquisition by adults. At the same time as these changes were taking place, English was undergoing intense contact with Scandinavian settlers who spoke Old Norse. During the same period English shows many signs of Old Norse influence. In addition to many very common words like take and skirt (which originally had a meaning identical to its native English cognate shirt), English borrowed several grammatical features of Scandinavian languages, such as the suffix –s seen in third person singular present verbs like ‘she blogs’ (the inherited suffix ended in –th, as in ‘she bloggeth’), and the pronouns they, their and them, which replaced earlier hīe, heora and heom. Like the extension of the plural in –s, these innovations appeared earliest in Northern dialects of English, where settlements of Old Norse speakers were concentrated, and gradually percolated South during the 11th to 15th centuries.

It’s possible that English grammar was simplified in some respects as a consequence of what the linguist Peter Trudgill has memorably called “the lousy language-learning abilities of the human adult”. Research on second-language acquisition confirms what many of us might suspect from everyday experience, that adult learners struggle with inflection (the expression of grammatical categories like ‘plural’ within words) and prefer overgeneralising a few rules rather than learning many different ways of doing the same thing. In this respect, Old Norse speakers in Medieval England would have found themselves in a similar situation to semi-speakers of East Sutherland Gaelic – when confronted with a number of different ways of expressing plural number, it is hard to remember for each noun which kind of plural it has, but simple to apply a single rule for all nouns. After all, much of the complexity of languages is unnecessary for communication: we can still understand children when they make mistakes like foots or bringed.

 

The death of the dual, or how to count sheep in Slovenian

The death of the dual, or how to count sheep in Slovenian

‘How cool is that?’ in German, literally ‘how horny is that then?’

One reason why translation is so difficult – and why computer translations are sometimes unreliable – is that languages are more than just different lists of names for the same universal inventory of concepts. There is rarely a perfect one-to-one equivalence between expressions in different languages: the French word mouton corresponds sometimes to English sheep, and at other times to the animal’s meat, where English uses a separate word lamb or mutton.

This was one of the great insights of Ferdinand de Saussure, arguably the father of modern linguistics. It applies not only in the domain of lexical semantics (word meaning), but also to the categories which languages organise their grammars around. In English, we systematically use a different form of nouns and verbs depending on whether we are referring to a single entity or multiple entities. The way we express this distinction varies: sometimes we make the plural by adding a suffix to the singular (as with hands, oxen), sometimes we change the vowel (foot/feet) and occasionally we don’t mark the distinction on a noun at all, as with sheep (despite the best efforts of this change.org petition to change the singular to ‘shoop’). Still, we can often tell whether someone is talking about one or more sheep by the form of the agreeing verb: compare ‘the sheep are chasing a ball’ to ‘the sheep is chasing a ball’.

Some languages make more fine-grained number distinctions. The English word sheep could be translated as ovca, ovci or ovce in Slovenian, depending on whether you’re talking about one, two, or three or more animals, respectively. Linguists call this extra category between singular and plural the dual. The difference between dual and plural doesn’t show up just in nouns, but also in adjectives and verbs which agree with nouns. So to translate the sentence ‘the beautiful sheep are chasing a ball’, you need to ascertain whether there are two or more sheep, not just to translate sheep, but also beautiful and chase.

Lepi ovci lovita žogo
beautiful sheep chase ball
Lepe ovce lovijo žogo
beautiful sheep chase ball

According to some, having a dual number makes Slovenian especially suited for lovers (could this explain the Slovenian tourist board’s decision to title their latest campaign I feel sLOVEnia?). But putting such speculations aside, it’s hard to see what the point of a dual could be. We rarely need to specify whether we are talking about two or more than two entities, and on the rare occasions we do need to make this information explicit, we can easily do so by using the numeral two.

This might be part of the reason why many languages, including English, have lost the dual number. Both English and Slovenian ultimately inherited their dual from Proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of many of the languages of Europe and India. Proto-Indo-European made a distinction between dual and plural number in its nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and verbs, but most of the modern languages descended from it have abandoned this three-way system in favour of a simpler opposition between singular and plural. Today, the dual survives only in two Indo-European languages, Slovenian and Sorbian, both from the Slavic subfamily.

In English the loss of the dual was a slow process, taking place over thousands of years. By the time the predecessor of English had split off from the other Germanic languages, the plural had replaced the dual everywhere except the first and second-person pronouns we and you, and verbs which agreed with them. By the earliest written English texts, it had lost the dual forms of verbs altogether, but still retained distinct pronouns for ‘we two’ and ‘you two’. By the 15th century, these were replaced by the plural forms, bringing the dual’s final demise.

Grammatical categories do not always disappear without a trace – in some languages the dual has left clues of its earlier existence, even though no functional distinction between dual and plural remains. Like English, German lost its dual, but in some Southern German dialects the dual pronoun enk (cognate with Old English inc, ‘to you two’) has survi­ved instead of the old plural form. In modern dialects of Arabic, plural forms of nouns have generally replaced duals, except in a few words mostly referring to things that usually exist in pairs, like idēn ‘hands’, where the old dual form has survived as the new plural instead. Other languages show vestiges of the dual only in certain syntactic environments. For example, Scottish Gaelic has preserved old dual forms of certain nouns only after the numeral ‘two’: compare aon chas ‘one foot’, dà chois ‘two feet’, trì casan ‘three feet’, casan ‘feet’.

Although duals seem to be on the way out in Indo-European languages, it isn’t hard to find healthy examples in other language families (despite what the Slovenian tourist board might say). Some languages have even more complicated number systems: Larike, one of the languages spoken in Indonesia, has a trial in addition to a dual, which is used for talking about exactly three items. And Lihir, one of the many languages of Papua New Guinea, has a paucal number in addition to both dual and trial, which refers to more than three but not many items. This system of five number categories (singular/dual/trial/paucal/plural) is one of the largest so far discovered. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum are languages which don’t make any number distinction in nouns, like English sheep.